Anyone familiar with Louis C.K.’s comedy won’t be surprised by his new show’s potty mouth. But there’s also the heart behind it that resonates with audiences and has made him one of the hottest comics around.
As writer, director and editor for Louie — airing Tuesday beginning June on FX — C.K. is pouring all his talents into the series, which shows a fictionalized version of his life as a standup comic and newly single dad in New York. It’s not too far off-base to think of it as a much edgier Seinfeld, with standup bits intermingled into the offstage stories that inspired the material.
C.K. spoke with me at length about playing a comedian for the first time, being a divorced dad, and the words he still can’t say on television.
You’ve had other TV roles, but this is the first time you’re playing a comedian. Did you figure it was just time, or was there another reason it happened that way?
I was trying to figure out ways to use different material when I go onstage and stuff, and I was going to translate it into narration or something, and then I decided my favorite way to deliver these kind of thoughts verbally is onstage. So I decided to put standup in the show. Yeah, I just decided, the heck with it, I’ll just be me right now. I’m not going to do a fake job. Whenever you try to do one of these shows, you try to think, “Well, what’s my occupation?” That’s always one of the hardest things for me to come up with. So this seemed simpler, more direct.
The setup should be familiar to those who like the first few seasons of Seinfeld, where you see the comedian doing his material, then the real-life incidents that gave it to him. Is that a similarity that you noticed going in, and what do you think of it?
There’s similarities in the format, kind of. I think in the end it’s what the show’s about that matters. Jerry’s show expressively was about nothing. So he would have kind of abstract observations, and then he’d have these stories that were kind of equally just these strange observations. This show’s a little more autobiographical, so what I talk about onstage is more personal, and what’s played out on the clips is more personal. The way I approached it was more like something like Annie Hall or a Woody Allen movie, where he talks a little bit with some jokes, and then you’d see the clips run together. Also, this isn’t a sitcom with sort of a two-act mark, act break — one of those things that go along with sitcoms. A lot of the episodes are cut in half, so that one half of the show has standup in one film, and the second half is a whole other story, like the pilot. So it’s a little different that way.
The stories are from real life, but you’re not afraid to delve into some fantasy elements within that. I’m thinking of your date running away from you and getting into a helicopter, or the elderly neighbor who exposes herself to your character.
To me, these things always come from somewhere. I mean, nobody ever got in a helicopter to get away from me, but I’ve felt that way at the end of dates. There are people like that in New York, especially old ladies and stuff. There’s a lot of strange people who put themselves right out there in a really weird way. That’s never happened to me, but a lot of these things come from telling myself the stories and walking through it. I wanted to be out in the hallway waiting for this woman on this date, and this sort of came into my head.
I saw on IMDb someone listed as “young Louis CK,” so it sounds like there will be flashbacks to when you were a kid. What kind of stuff will we see?
We just filmed some of those last week, and that kid’s pretty great, but yeah, we’re going to see some flashbacks. I only have one show so far that has flashbacks in it, but he was really good so we may go there again. It’s just sexually confusing experiences that I had. None of the stuff is really autobiographical so much, like I’m not re-enacting stuff from my life. I guess what I’m doing is taking who I am in real life and putting that person into fictional situations. The story I wrote for this kid isn’t something that happened to me. It feels like some of the things that happened to me, and reflects how I felt about girls and sex at that time.
Are the episodes going to be connected, story-wise, or are they all just isolated adventures?
This season so far has been isolated adventures. Every show is a little bit different, picking up on what characters we want to bring back. But mostly it’s just this guy trying to figure out what he’s supposed to want out of life after marriage. And it’s a lot of New York stories and stuff like that. Each episode is a little different in how they’re filmed, and they’re all different in the kind of story that I’m telling. The standup will always be there. We’ll see what happens. To me, the last few years I’ve been writing an hour of standup every year. This is this year’s hour, basically, going into this show. I’m trying to tap some kind of source where I’m able to come up with this material a lot and some of it will be told in jokes and some in stories. I don’t see it running out. I mean, as long as I’m living a life I’ll have something to talk about.
You’re a single dad with two daughters. Will the show talk about their mother, your ex-wife?
She’s strictly not going to be in it, at all. We filmed an episode where she drops the kids off at my place in a cab, and she stays in the cab. We never see her. That’s just not part of my life anymore. The big thing about being a divorced single dad has been just being a dad without a mom, and that’s a big step for guys who go through this is being a dad on your own terms instead of being mom’s assistant, which a lot of dads are. To me it’s important to keep that separate. Also, my kids’ mother is my co-parent and my friend, but she’s not married to me anymore, and I feel like any sense that she’s being put on TV, I don’t want to do that. I think when you’re in a family with somebody who is an entertainer, you come up in their stuff in one form or another. It happens. But if you opt out of the relationship I think it’s not fair to keep talking about them. The kids on my show are also not my kids. The kids on my show are similar ages to my girls, and I have two girls, but their characters are very different from my own kids.
A lot of the appeal of your material about parenting is that you air out for everyone all the thoughts you shouldn’t have.
If you love your kids, you think these things eventually. If you’re putting in the hard work and effort, it’s hard. If you only think positive stuff about your kids, you probably don’t really struggle with this stuff.
One of the notable things about your past TV series, Lucky Louie, is that it was filmed before a live studio audience. This, obviously, is single camera, but are the performances live and one-take?
We usually do two shows for the standup. We do one with the regular audience and one that I just sort of [put the word out on] Twitter and get. It’s still the same people that would come and see me live anywhere else. It’s live in a club, but I do a version where I tell the audience they’re at a TV taping. The reason for that is that I can stop taping, because I’m directing it also, and I can control the environment and make sure we’re getting the shots right without upsetting a live audience. So if the audience is there for the show it’s easier to say, “We need to stop for a second for camera.”
Does that make it tough as a performer, having to stop for the cameras?
It’s not that different. I’m getting used to this kind of stuff. This last film that I did, Hilarious, my standup concert movie, I directed that, too, and I had cameras onstage with me and I just told the audience to expect them to be there. It’s not that different. In the end, standup is a very focusing form, so when you just get back to telling jokes people just get right back in with you.
Do you miss the live-in-front-of-a-studio-audience form you had with Lucky Louie?
To me it’s just two totally different things. I loved doing that, and this one is just as fun. This is fun for me in a whole other way, which is that I love to direct, I love to make films. And that’s how this show to me is different from some others, too, is that each of these pieces are like films. They’re shot like movies. We shoot on really good cameras with high lenses, and I get really into how we shoot this stuff. Being out on location and shooting with a crew, that’s really, really fun, and it’s also varied and it’s different every day instead of being on the same set every day. The charge that came from doing that Lucky Louie material for a live audience with a cast, that was really cool and I’d like to try it again someday. I don’t miss that I’m not doing it, I’m just not doing it.
Lucky Louie was controversial right out of the gate, with the family organizations, Barbara Walters, etc. But there hasn’t yet been that buzz yet around Louie. Do you think that’s because the show is different, or maybe because more people know about you and what you do?
This isn’t on the air yet. Most of that came out after [Lucky Louie premiered]. I don’t know, Barbara Walters just wasn’t paying attention. She said the show was racist because there was a black guy in it and I acknowledged him being black. It’s bizarre to me, the stuff she said, and I think she just said it to be inflammatory. But besides her, I don’t remember too much of that. Some people were offended, I guess. But, I dunno. It’s funny, the way something looks makes people expect different things from it. Our show was on HBO, and we came on after Entourage, and I remember one of the episodes we did where we have sex and I’m trying to help her have an orgasm. That came after an episode of Entourage where they have some guy who just got out of prison staying with them, and there’s a scene where he’s just slamming some girl in the ass and you see his balls and everything and he’s practically raping her, and it’s really gross and upsetting, and nobody gives a s@#% because it’s a show about young guys in showbiz and they’re not expected to behave well. … [On] The Sopranos, they beat a hooker to death and everybody’s laughing. In our show, where we’re a monogamous married couple, and I’m trying to help my wife have an orgasm, everybody’s like, “Eww.”
Maybe it was the fact that it looked more like a sitcom, that it was shot on video, and it looked more immediate.
That’s exactly right, and that was the point of it. I’m glad that it was effective to people that way, and there’s a lot of people that still tell me — I get constant e-mails about Lucky Louie — it struck a chord in a lot of people, so I consider that a good thing. This show, I don’t know if it’ll piss anybody off. The pilot’s pretty soft as far as there’s nothing social, there’s nothing vulgar. The pilot’s pretty sweet in that sense. Except for the standup in the pilot is pretty much what I do right onstage. Some of it is kind of dark. We’ll see what people think.
You directed and edited the pilot. Are you doing that for all the episodes?
I’m doing the same thing through the whole series. I have an editor that I’m starting to work with because I’m getting deep into production now. I’m getting a little overwhelmed because I’m writing them all and directing them all, and I cut the first few episodes and I may have this guy cut a few of them, but I’m still going to edit most of them.
You are bleeped a bit in the version I saw. What can’t you say?
There are some specific parameters as far as language goes. We can’t say “f@#%,” “c@#%,” “c@#$sucker,” “t@#t” and “retard.” Outside of that there are words that are on the border. There are places when I like to go ahead and say the words and then bleep them rather than take them out, but FX is pretty liberal as far as what we’re allowed to say. It all amounts to a little more freedom than I’ve ever had on television, so I’m happy to be there. But once in awhile there will be a bleep, and I feel like when it’s a performance it’s not so weird to hear a bleep on television.
When you develop a show for TV, especially something a little different like Louie, do you think about how long a life it might have, how many seasons you might do it?
I think it will go for a while. I don’t look at, I mean, when you get into words like “franchise” and “syndication” and stuff like that, none of those are creative terms. I never have felt like any TV show has to go on forever. I never understood that. It’s kind of an American obsession that once something succeeds it should never fail. It should just become permanent. That’s just weird. I’ve no idea how long this show could or will run. We’ll see. I learned from Lucky Louie to really seize the day and enjoy your work while you’re doing it. That’s all I’m thinking about. I’m making 13 of these right now, and that’s a nice, bulky order of TV shows. I’m really happy to be doing these. But we’ll see what happens after that.
Has it been easier or more difficult as your career progresses to hold out for projects that you really believe in, rather than just trying to cash in?
I make a decent income on the road doing standup, so I don’t have to do anything that I don’t want to do, generally. And that’s right now. I’ve always tried to have some way to protect that. I used to write for TV, that’s the way I used to make money. It’s better on the road, because it’s just a lot more freedom. I took this show over far more lucrative offers on larger networks, because I had the financial freedom to do it. I was on the road, making more than the networks wanted to pay me anyway, so that wasn’t a concern. I’m doing this show because this is the show that I want to do. This is the best job I ever had, and I was able to say yes to this over more money, because I do have an autonomous income — I take care of it by myself from the road. I try not to think about financial s@#$ when I’m working. It doesn’t make you more money. If you focus on that, you don’t get richer, so even from being greedy it doesn’t make sense to think about money in this line of work. Thinking about how you can make money actually ends up taking away money from you.